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Captain Scott's Field Telephone

Captain Scott's Field Telephone

26 November - 4 December 2013

Dr Simpson at the telephone and Sidereal Clock. July 14th 1911 (Photo: Herbert Ponting) SPRI P2005/5/459

Captain Scott's field telephone, used during the British Antarctic Expedition (1910–13) is currently on display in the Polar Museum. It is on loan from Cheltenham Ladies' College and the Museum's Conservator has carried out conservation work to make it ready for exhibition.

Hut Point telephone after conservation (Photo: Willow Silvani)


The telephone was supplied to Captain Robert Falcon Scott's British Antarctic (Terra Nova) Expedition of 1910–13 by the National Telephone Company Ltd, which, in partnership with LM Ericsson (the Swedish phone manufacturer), had the largest factory making Ericsson phones outside Sweden.

The phone is Number 3 out of five phones which were supplied to the Terra Nova expedition. The boxes for the phones were all built from wood so that the lids would close and they could be easily transported like any other sledging box. The handsets were made from aluminium and Bakelite.

The combined handset has both NT Co and Ericsson stamped on it. The National Telephone Company was taken over by the General Post Office (GPO) in 1912, while Scott's expedition was in Antarctica, and ceased to trade on 31 December 1911 when its licence expired.

Displayed alongside the telephone is some aluminium wire which connected the phones in Antarctica. Laid by the men of the Terra Nova expedition, the wire was supplied on drums, and the system was installed by using instructions supplied by the National Telephone Company. A copy of the instruction manual accompanies the exhibition. This manual gives details about the way the phones were connected and the research behind the choice of wire used.


The Hut Point telephone has undergone conservation treatment while at the Polar Museum, which has revealed details about it which are hard to see with the naked eye. Examining the front of the wooden case under ultra-violet light shows that there are two messages doodled in pencil next to the crank handle. One says "Telephone Cape Evans 9 to 9.10am" and the other says "0 12 : 6 o'clock". The first seems to be a reminder and the second is perhaps a scientific instrument reading that was given over the phone and jotted down on the wood as there was no paper to hand.

The handset is attached to the phone with two different types of wire, because the original wire has been partly replaced. The instruction manual for the phone recommends replacing the handset wire if the reception becomes too crackly, and this may explain why newLaying telephone wire over Cape Evans (Photo: Charles Seymour Wright) SPRI P99/50/117 wire was attached. The original wire is smooth and insulated inside with tightly bound cotton thread. It is still in excellent condition. The replacement wire is a twisted type with rubber based insulation. The rubber is now very brittle and crumbly with age, and so has been made secure with conservation repairs.

The wire used to connect the five Antarctic telephones was made of pure aluminium. This was chosen because it was much lighter than iron or copper. 600lbs of wire were supplied on drums, and the system was installed by the men of the Terra Nova expedition themselves, using instructions supplied by the National Telephone Company.

No insulation was used because it was thought that the sub-zero temperatures and the snow would act as perfect insulation. A letter from the expedition's meteorologist, George Clarke Simpson, now in the archive of Cheltenham Ladies' College, suggests this was not actually the case, as the phone did not work well when the sun was out. Hut Point phone reception was found to be very poor in the middle of the day. This may have been due to the sun heating the wire and generating a very thin layer of water next to the surface. Simpson was consulted in the design of the system wiring before the expedition.

The manual also has fascinating instructions on how to use the phones. The system was very primitive and users could not speak and listen at the same time - the phone operated rather like a walkie-talkie. The handset has a button on the handle which you have to press down when speaking and calls had to be scheduled for specific times.